Wergeld: Price of Life

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Although the wergeld initially served as a buffer in a violence prone Anglo-Saxon culture, it eventually was used to determine social standing and establish the power of the king. Anglo-Saxon England began as a heroic society that valued honor and kin above all. This society maintained a high potential towards internal strife that threatened to destabilize it. The wergeld developed in this hostile culture as a social convention that offered an alternative to the violence. Once written into Royal Law, the power of the wergeld to stabilize the society solidified. It also developed an alternate purpose: supporting and expanding the power of the king.

In Anglo-Saxon England widely accepted social systems and traditional concepts could function in place of official authority to determine matters that would later require legal intervention :. rights of inheritance, marriage, land ownership, and settlement of disputes. Quarrels could arise for any number of reasons including but not limited to, manslaughter, property disagreements, and insults to honor. When these conflicts of interest occurred, instead of seeking outside authorities, it was expected that family would intercede and seek retribution or restitution on their kindreds behalf. Richard Fletcher reports that feuding was “governed by accepted social convention.” and “recognized by outsiders as a regular form of relationship.”1 This kind of intercession could easily provoke already delicate situations into violence. While the feuding may have been accepted, and even encouraged in certain situations, the Anglo-Saxons knew their society would not be able to function if every conflict came to a violent end. The wergeld established an alternative to claiming blood vengeance. The guilty individual or his family could make restitution in the form of monetary compensation. The historian Wallace-Hadrill points out “. . . the reality of the bloodier alternative was the sanction that made composition possible at any stage.”2 In other words the threat of socially acceptable, and expected violence gave the offending party reason to pay the wergeld and spare their family's bloodshed. The amount of the wergeld varied between the classes and nations, but the principle remained the same.

It would be inaccurate to claim there were only one Anglo-Saxon wergeld system because Northumbria, Wessex, Kent, and Mercia each had their own . However, there are certain similar elements that appear when they are all compared . The first codified wergeld appeared in Kent and was put into law by one Aethelbert who ruled fro around 560 to 616AD.3 H.R. Loyn writes that in Kent the free peasant or Ceorl was worth one hundred gold, or four hundred shillings, noblemen were worth twelve hundred shilling and the king was worth twelve times that of any other nobleman.4 This represents the basic structure of most wergeld systems in England at the time. Where Kent's laws differ from others is in the price of the freeman. The Kentish Ceorl was worth twice as much as the peasants of any other kingdom, presumably because they had a higher status in society. More commonly the free peasants, were given the price of two-hundred shillings as wergeld and came to be known as the two-hundred men. Ine, King of Wessex's laws written cir. 694AD is different in it's consideration of the welsh.5 The Welshman's value in society was less than that of the Ceorl, and depended on how much land was owned.6 They did however warrant their own wergeld, which offered them some level of protection and inclusion in legal matters of the state. Northumbria's wergeld describes a society somewhat different from it's counterparts in that it has several classes of nobleman with separate wergeld values for each, usually relating to their office.7 This indicates a ranking system based on service to the king. Once written into law the wergeld became much more important than a social alternative to violence. Because of the way...
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